First Responders are at Risk Themselves

December 22, 2017


Photo by David S. Morin Hudson Fire Department members gather at the White Birch for a workshop on firefighter suicide prevention.

by David S. Morin

It’s a subject that has been taboo in firehouses, police stations, and EMS stations across this country.  Emergency workers are the ones who come to help when someone is having the worst day in their lives and they need to respond no matter what.  First responders never want to show their weakness and, through the years, were told to shrug it off.  Their coping methods range from dark humor, pulling their car over on their way home after shift where no can see them and cry, or just not talking about what they have seen or have been through.  First responder suicide is increasing at an alarming rate across the country.

In 2016, 132 first responders took their own lives due to job-related PTSD {Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)  A 2015 survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate of the general public.  The Hudson Fire Department is not immune to first responder suicide.  Over the years, the department has lost several members to suicide.  Firefighters work and live together in a firehouse throughout their career and see their coworkers almost as much as their own families.  When a suicide takes place it hits them all as it would for immediate family.

For many years in this area, stress-debriefing teams staffed by outside agency peers have provided immediate counseling after traumatic incidents.  In many cases, the counseling ends after the initial debriefing as responders feel that if they tell others they are having issues dealing with their job, they will be looked at as weak, so they keep it bottled up inside.  There is counseling available through the town, but their biggest fear is confidentiality or that the counselors don’t understand what they’re going through.

In the past months, Hudson’s first responders have dealt with the rash of serious injury and fatal motor vehicle accidents, which does take a toll, then multiply that by years of service and the stress builds, even with the most seasoned veteran responder.  This on top of this other dangers they face, dealing with today’s society, and busy family lives at times leads to a tragic end.

Recently, Fire Department Executive Coordinator Erika LaRiviere received information on a course by the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance who provides workshops with a strong emphasis toward suicide prevention and promoting resources available to firefighters and EMS and their families.  With great concern for the department’s employees, Fire Chief Rob Buxton, Professional Firefighters of Hudson President Jeff Sands, and Captain Steve Gannon worked together to secure a grant to fund the workshop, and a location for the course to be held.

Chicago Firefighter Jeff Dell came to Hudson on Dec. 7 to the White Birch leading a workshop for an audience of 41 members of the fire department.  The workshop provided firefighters with the necessary tools to care for their own and coworkers’ mental health.  Chief Buxton said the program was outstanding.  The workshop provided a baseline of information and offered the department’s supervisors ways to detect possible problems and how to be more aware if an employee is having a difficult time.

Jeff Sands, president of the Professional Firefighters of Hudson, said the workshop was a real eye-opener for him.  He said that he found that through his career he has been affected and can see some of the symptoms in his own life.  One of the biggest symptoms that stood out to him was that he is no longer as outgoing in social activities outside of the department as he used to.  This symptom of PTSD Jeff relates to the many traumatic incidents he has seen over the years is a fear that people not connected with the emergency services just won’t understand.  Realizing he’s not alone, he cites discussions with other crew members about limiting their exposure to others, breaking out in tears, having nightmares, and just dealing with it in their own way in fear of what others may think.  Firefighters have a persona in the general public and, within their own ranks, of being the tough guys and girls and to rush in and save the day while leaving their feelings behind.

Sands went on to say he and other department members are very appreciative of the services the town provides for counseling but are very concerned about confidentiality and the possibility of losing their jobs.  There are professionals in the area who are specifically trained to deal with the stresses emergency workers deal with day in and day out, and, working along with the department’s administration, he would like to see these professionals used when a firefighter is in need of counseling.

Buxton and Sands said the workshop was well received and that both were contacted by members who first were reluctant to participate in the course but are now very glad that they did.  Both went on to say that the department’s administration and firefighter labor group will work together in the future to provide more of this type of training.  Their  hope is to open it up to the families of the department members to instruct them how to recognize signs and symptoms of PTSD, and how to provide their firefighters’ loved ones with the support they may need.

Chief Buxton said one piece that may have been missed is those members who have retired and been sent along without assistance.  After all those years of helping others, they find themselves in retirement with nothing to stand for, no one to help and nothing to do.  They still deal with their own symptoms of PTSD, which can leave them with a feeling of worthlessness.

Both said they were very appreciative for the assistance of the White Birch in Hudson who provided donated space and the meal for the workshop and the funding received to hold the event at no cost to the taxpayers.

The department’s administration and labor group will continue to work together to develop a comprehensive program for the health and welfare of the firefighters to include operating procedures and general orders providing a guideline for the counseling assistance for members.  They also will work to continuing in the future with further training protect Hudson’s first responders from the devastating effects of PTSD and to possibly save the lives of one of their own.